Notre Dame de Consolation
I loved her better when she lied.
It gave her face a rapt expression and released my imagination to journey once more on odysseys of heartless betrayal and passionate revenge. Ah, those voyages sans arrivée… But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me begin.
I had been living in London and had taken time out after a dreary sequence of non-jobs and abrasive affairs. I wanted to try an alternative to the vacuity of Anglo-American culture, so I drifted south to France and picked up part-time work as a web designer in a rural town. Monique was a student gaining work experience in the marketing side of the operation. There was a bit of an age gap, but nothing too serious, and we soon found we had plenty in common to giggle over, not least the random histrionics of (Plastique) Bertrand, our mutual boss. We found a shared interest in learning each other’s language, so we began to spend a lot of time together – an alliance nouvelle you might say. She was somewhat diffident in company, but affectionate and light-hearted when we were alone – a welcome change from the city harridans I used to attract.
She was still a little gauche when I brought her back to Scotland. She’d moved into my apartment not long after completing her course, then I got the news that I was needed back home to run the family business, paterfamilias having been incapacitated by a stroke. After drifting happily along, we suddenly had some big decisions to make. Mine was more or less forced, but she had to weigh up the wrenches of leaving her family for the first time and of grappling with the alien forces of my local climate, diet and drinking disorders. Fortunately, she mustered sufficient bravado (or was it incipient dementia?) to sign up for the expedition.
I was really happy to have her with me. Returning to the bosom of my family gave me no great cheer and I had some foreboding about the health of the business as well as that of my father (with good reason as it turned out). I hoped she would act as an antidote to all that, while tackling her own incubation problems with a sense of adventure.
However, the first months didn’t work as well as I’d anticipated. I was drawn further into saving an ailing firm and salving an ailing father. She tried to fill my absentee hours by taking on tutoring and translation work, but didn’t seem to stick at anything for very long. She couldn’t establish a rapport with my mother (who could?), nor any of our limited circle of friends and neighbours. Lacking a confidante, she took to occupying herself mainly with cuisine, turning out some exquisite dishes, but muttering darkly about lack of proper ingredients and my increasingly erratic homecomings.
Our love-making became sporadic. She still exuded that warmth, but became more selective about making it available. Her refusals were wordless, tense occasions, as though I ought to know better rather than press for explanations. The freshness always goes, but you hope that the bonding gets stronger. Sometimes though, you know least well the one you are supposed to be closest to…
Things were on a downward spiral. Family fealty meant I couldn’t easily give up on my ministries. I established that Monique was resolved not to quit, though was unsure how best to proceed. So, we agreed to find a central motif to bolster her days. I called Dennis, an old university mate, now running an advertising agency, and begged a favour. The downsides for him were obvious – she had limited experience, and her English was less than fluent (though that accent was fetching). However, she was creative, industrious and wasn’t going to make a big dent on his payroll. He rallied to our cause; I made the introductions, and then left them to talk it through while I went in search of an Americano.
Whatever they said seemed to click. She was hired as a junior account executive and started more or less immediately. The agency was going through a buoyant period, engaging new clients and nosing out fresh talent and ideas to stay ahead of its competitors. Soon I could detect visible changes – she dressed sharper, styled her hair and spent more time on make-up, especially her eyes. Dennis apparently liked to woo his clients with style as well as product.
Back at base, balances shifted. Now we both worked long and unpredictable hours, but, when opportunities arose, we enjoyed cooking together, often late, as a prelude to what we liked to call synchronised swimming. We even reinvented conversation, both having fresh stories to tell, and she growing in confidence as her working brief enlarged. It wasn’t always possible to be so convivial, but at least she seemed to associate her abstinences with periods of intense work pressure – clients on the verge of signing deals and that kind of thing. I grew happier as she grew more vital, and clung to this solace during my working days, where I shuffled along clad in duty’s leaden boots.
No sooner had I adjusted to this regime than it seemed our equilibrium mutated once more. She’d achieved fame by charming a couple of stubborn clients into signing contracts and the agency reward machine triggered its benefactions. Her bonus led to a buying frenzy (how many shoes does one person need?), while the promotion seeded a tensile strength into her self-assurance. More seismic though was the award of an entertainment allowance – she was now expected to court a more prestigious cut of client.
In advertising, you measure entertainment in hours of devotion. Our moments of coincidence receded as she undertook evening and weekend events, her energy sustained by an apparently ceaseless buzz of vivacity. Initially, her itinerary was delivered in a prosaic enough way, but I gradually sensed that not everything she said rang true. I’m not blessed with any deep emotional intelligence, so I can’t give you the quantum change in eye contact, voice tone or any of these indicators. With hindsight, it was probably her beatific expression, but really, you just know when something is wrong.
Perversely though, when we did find time in her crowded schedule to reunite, our coupling gained a kind of frantic potency. She abandoned all reserve and came to me wantonly, using teeth and nails, breathing lewd and provocative mumblings, all as never before. I confess to having enjoyed nothing so achingly intense previously or since. After such sessions, I would fall, totally spent, into dreamless sleep, wanting for nothing.
However, my conscious thoughts more than compensated for these comatose periods. Was she practising pleasure or penance? Was her technique natural or acquired? What inducements were needed to seal the big deals? I entered a state of torment, oscillating wildly between physical highs and duplicitous lows. I hallucinated through louche motives, carnal misdeeds, sudden dénouement and violent retribution. My Presbyterian diligence faltered under fire, and I began to make empirical errors in my work.
Something had to give, and I finally chose to investigate rather than confront. A more dramatised script might have included hiring a gumshoe or arranging a finely-worked set-up, but mine tended to the banal. She had announced a weekend hosting for a client near Kenmore and a distant bell rang. Kenmore was Dennis’s home turf, and I was pretty sure he still maintained a retreat up there somewhere. The research was easy enough to do through my contacts in the property world, and a postcode search on the net zeroed in on the location. I left home before she did on a pretext and made good time up the A9 to my planned stake-out. The rest was straightforward. He arrived. She arrived. Nobody else turned up. It was a long time before they came out again. Maybe she was just returning his favour.
My wilder imaginings had had me armed with a meat cleaver or a pistol at the point of discovery, but my reality was acquiescent. I sat for ages reflecting. Anger subsided quickly enough and I remember being surprised by not being surprised. Casting blame was easy enough until I factored in my own complicity. No escaping the consequences of your own actions, eh? I drove slowly home in case I killed anything else.
I left it for a few days before I brought the subject up. It was just a casual aside to enquire if Dennis had enjoyed his weekend too, but I could see her stiffen immediately, antennae locked on to my knowing signals. There were some desultory explanations of how I had and why she had, but nothing revelatory. We agreed we needed more time to think.
She had never found her confidante. The bitchy world of advertising was an unlikely source, and pride ruled out a confessional with her distant mother. She resigned her job soon after, and took up with the sisters of the nearby sanctuary of Notre Dame de Consolation. I don’t think she was looking for membership there, more a case of unscrambling her head. I was sceptical; they might administer kindliness, but worldliness probably not. Anyway, she spent a while recuperating there.
For my part, I returned to the relentless grind of the workhouse. I had no prospects of achieving a miracle turnaround in the fortunes of the firm – changing markets and a history of dilatory housekeeping had seen to that – but I was determined to keep it afloat until its long-serving retainers reached pensionable status. Neither could I save my father, now almost vegetative, but I wanted him to know that his loyal band would gain some reward.
I could have thrown Monique out onto the street, but it would have been churlish to do so – she had, after all, given me my all-time physical and emotional highs (and lows). You might reasonably accuse me of over-sentimentality or weakness, but I waited for her to complete her confinement and make contact again. Dennis and I silently agreed to maintain a reciprocal silence.
Monique returned after about six weeks. I was glad to see she’d reverted to her unstyled, natural look. She was warm and slightly trembling to hold, but a lot more passive than before. Her eyes were downcast and she said little. She had shed her business mien, but I doubt if the sisters had completely cleansed her soul – I don’t think she liked herself much yet. I said she could stay and she nodded, though I sensed it might be like going on holiday to the same place twice; hard to repeat the good times if the circumstances change.
And there you have it. The higher you fly, the shorter the journey. Paradoxically, the very thing which gives you altitude turns out to be gravity playing games.
I’m glad I did it though, and I loved her even when she lied.
[Selected by Laura Hird as runner-up in the Soutar Prize 2007 and published on her website.]